Automated error reporting: the beginning of a beautiful relationship?

Whether recognized or not, customer relations is embedded in the fabric of every software development and IT organization. Automated error reporting is not a silver bullet, but it’s a good start toward engendering customer loyalty and affection.

Over the past year I’ve spent a fair bit of time with people who are developing and using automated error reporting. The research I’ve done has culminated in a free eZine:

If you’re thinking about adding an error reporting system to your applications, this is a good resource to find out how it works and what type of returns you can expect. All the bottom-line business benefits are listed in the eZine, but there’s one that’s not spelled out, but implied everywhere: better customer relations.

Embedded in the fabric

For many software developers and IT organizations, customer relations is an afterthought – some wishy-washy concept best left to the intellectually-challenged marketing and PR people.

But, if you look at it another way, customer relations is embedded into the fabric of every IT organization. On a basic level, software development teams and IT organizations exist to make their customers’ jobs easier, whether these customers reside within the company or outside of it.

Looking over the notes, articles and interviews I’ve compiled for various projects over the past year in relation to Red Gate’s SmartAssembly obfuscation and automated error reporting tool, I noticed many of them touched on customer relations in one form or another.

Here’s what Andrew Neville, senior software engineer at Neville & Rowe, said:

“At the end of the day we are making the reporting of issues incredibly simple for our clients. We receive all the information we need in order to rectify the issue simply through the mechanism of the user pressing the Send button. By having SmartAssembly built into our solutions we are offering our clients an extra level of service and a more direct line of communication and dialog with us.”

Two things are revealing about that comment. One is that making it simple to report errors is a pre-requisite for any error reporting system. Make it difficult to report errors and at best you don’t get the level of reporting to make this system beneficial; at worst you end up alienating customers. The second point shows that if done right, automated error reporting is a valuable tool for getting closer to customers and helping them become invested in making your software better.

Profound benefits

Getting closer to customers takes commitment and a bit of courage. It’s a lot easier to put your head in the sand or take the imperial route of “we know better than they do.” But, the organizations that take the brave steps and make the commitment to implementing automated error reporting can reap rewards that might not be immediately measurable, but are profound.

Here are some other comments from interviews that touch on the effect of an error reporting service on customer relations.

“Automated error reporting has improved the quality of our software, resulting in happier users, less downtime and increased perception of professionalism.”

“I used to hate being told about errors in my code. However, I rapidly learned that to make great software, the ego must stand aside…Sometimes unit tests just don’t cover everything and there has to be some understanding of this. [When] I explain how error reporting works to my users, they seem to be fine with it…This is just good customer relations – you aren’t abandoning them and you are taking the ownership of the problem from them.”

“I think that it shows the customer that even though there are bugs, we are being proactive about them and trying to deal with them in the most painless way possible to the client.”

“At the click of a button, the user can send all this information back to the software company. No more repeated telephone calls, endless back and forth emails and incomplete error reporting. Not only will it make a developer happier and your life easier, but it will make the customer happier and less frustrated.”

“It gives the impression that we’re on top of problems.”

Gateway to a deeper realm

These are comments that every software developer and IT professional can understand. But, there’s also something else at play. Automated error reporting can be a gateway tool for going beyond the vendor/customer relationship and into a deeper emotional realm. It can help cement a bond with users, leading to greater trust, reliability, loyalty, forgiveness and affection.

Why is that important? Because it can have a positive effect on your business, with these attendant benefits:

  • Greater word-of-mouth referrals – when companies become closer to customers, customers become company or product ambassadors.
  • Greater willingness to forgive mistakes – customers who feel personally attached to a product or company are much more likely to be forgiving.
  • Greater acceptance of new products, even if in other categories – past performance and an emotional attachment spills over into other areas of the company’s business, creating a ‘Welcome mat’ for new offerings.
  • Less comparison and feature shopping – customers feel invested in the product or service because they are involved in making it better; they are less likely to abandon a company because a competitor has slightly newer features or a prettier interface.

Engendering fierce loyalty

Another emotional component of error reporting is the way customers respond to having a problem or issue corrected after it is reported. The famed restaurant owner Danny Meyer revels in the opportunity to make something right, knowing that it engenders fierce loyalty. In his book Setting the Table, Meyer describes his organization’s philosophy about mistakes:

“Most mistakes are simple enough to fix. But when we receive complaints of any type, our mission is twofold: first, to learn from the mistake and to profit from what we’ve learned; and second to write a great last chapter that allows us to end up in a better place with the guest than if we had never made the mistake in the first place.”

A software developer or IT organization might not do the equivalent of providing a free meal for a minor complaint or fixing a special variation of a dish without being asked, but the mere act of providing a tool by which customers can report an error at the push of a button demonstrates a similar type of concern for the customer.

Traditionally, IT has not been seen as a caring profession. That’s what makes it so ripe for the enlightened organizations that put aside their egos and show a genuine concern for their customers. Automated error reporting isn’t the silver bullet or the complete prescription for building caring relationships with customers, but it’s a great start.